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Should the Term Asset Map Be Put Into Room 101?

Part 1 of a series on ABCD 'frustrations' requiring fresh thought

Have you ever watched Room 101? The premise of the show is to invite a panel member to offer their frustrations, with a view to persuading the host that what is presented should be entered into Room 101 – never to be seen again. For those with a love of the modern classics, the concept originates from the Room 101 described in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The first thing on offer to Room 101 is the use of the term "asset mapping" in ABCD community-building practice. Whilst the process and practice of asset mapping is an essential community building method, the term is beginning to blur with various different forms of data gathering and analysis; such as where local people can access services. Does this miss the point? There are five clear arguments we hope to make to persuade our host and audience to join us in reviewing this term:

  (I)f (asset mapping) isn’t done and owned by community in an ongoing iterative and deeply discursive manner, it can be misused to feed the agendas of outside agencies.
  1. Asset mapping was never intended to be about data gathering by institutions but about relationship building between neighbours. It feels like there is a move away from this neighbourly connection, muddying the waters for thoughtful citizens hoping to grow and develop their own asset maps.
  2. We support a thoughtful movement away from asset mapping because if it isn’t done and owned by community in an ongoing iterative and deeply discursive manner, it can be misused to feed the agendas of outside agencies. At worst, asset mapping can turn into asset stripping, and result in volunteers being recruited as cheap alternatives to programmes and services previously funded by the state. Asset mapping was never intended to be about scoping out alternatives to funded programmes but about enlarging the commons and free space for mutuality and community. Sadly, it is being used this way and it’s time to call these people out!
  3. Map is a tricky word. Firstly, a map implies some sort of end product that can be held in your hand and is readable by anyone who buys it. Secondly, maps tend to be fairly permanent; think of a map of the Cairngorms national park. You could pick up a map from 50 years ago and still find your way home! Asset maps are different to this; people change, new neighbours move in and out, new groups pop up and fizzle away; the map changes and it is dynamic in nature. 
  4. A lot of groups are mapping outside the context of place. While there’s nothing wrong with this and people can do what they like, it’s a missed opportunity as place is where everything comes together potentially and where we get out of silos. But it’s also a misunderstanding of the original description of asset mapping, which really just puts a name to what happens when indigenous communities act together effectively in identifying, connecting and mobilising what they have to secure what they need.
  5. Lastly, to use a building metaphor, asset mapping is analogous to the scaffolding that goes up around a house. We have been witness to a number of examples where outside agencies have done an asset map to, or for, communities and assumed they had completed some action step. Imagine a developer putting up scaffolding around a building you wanted developed and claiming they were finished simply because they’d erected the scaffolding. Well that’s exactly what people who are doing asset mapping to or for communities are saying to those communities: ‘we’ve done the map, so now your community is built’. But in fact, no connecting has been done! More importantly it was done by the wrong people. Asset mapping should be done and owned by local residents.

In conclusion, it is pertinent to be reminded that "the map is not the territory." It’s also important to remember there is no one map in diverse and inclusive communities, but rather a mosaic, yet to be connected. While the community asset map can potentially counter the institutional map of needs and deficits, it can also confuse and frustrate attempts at genuine citizen-led, place based action. Here’s a simple case in point: a community builder working at street level, before supporting people to start mapping assets, will tend to start by inviting them to go into discovery mode with each other, to find out what motivates local people to take shared action. What are their dreams, concerns, the skills they’d like to share to contribute to the wellbeing of their community? Then they begin the process of supporting citizens to connect those motivations to the assets in their community. There are many examples of this being done the other way around, starting with the assets and then asking people what they’d like to do with those assets, with quite mixed results. While there’s an exception to every rule, are we putting the cart before the horse or perhaps, the assets before the motivations? Could this back to front approach be a consequence of too much ABCD by workshop, as opposed to actual community building?

So our question to you? Will you join us in putting the term "asset mapping" as a term, not a practice, into Room 101?

Part 2: ABCD; It Is Not About Overt Positivity

Co-authored by Shaun Burnett

Shaun Burnett is an associate of Nurture Development. He balances his time between mentoring Asset Based Community Development initiatives across the UK and as a practicing community builder, closer to home, in North Ayrshire, Scotland. He has a passion for citizen-led action, in particular, how communities harness and nurture the energy of young people to drive change.

This blog was originally posted on the Nurture Development website, and appears here with permission.

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Cormac Russell is Managing Director of Nurture Development, Director of ABCD Europe and a faculty member of the Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) Institute at Northwestern University, Chicago. He has trained communities, agencies, NGOs and governments in ABCD and other strengths-based approaches in Kenya, Rwanda, Southern Sudan, South Africa, the UK, Ireland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Canada and Australia.

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